Jean-Pierre Melville (October 20, 1917 – August 2, 1973), was a French film director often looked upon as the ‘king crime-noir films’. His body of work and mise-en-scene style heavily influenced Scorsese, John Woo and Tarantino to name but a few. Under-stated and minimalist, he managed the difficult process of making an artistic film also commercially viable. Melville would control everything from set design, writing the script, and running the camera, mixing obsessive gangster pastiches with restrained, precise and sensitive symbolism.
Described as the ‘Poet of the underworld’ and the ‘garlic gangster’, he was considered to be the “father of the nouvelle vague”, a major influence on the French New Wave movement. But it was the American gangster films of the ’30s and ’40s starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart that really caught his imagination. Melville recreated the genre for a new wave audience using weapons, trench coats and fedora hats, to shape a characteristic look in his movies.
Just one look at the shot in Le Cercle Rouge where Alain Delon’s and Gian Maria Volonte’s characters meet surrounded by the beautiful elongated country landscape as the camera pans between the two men whom size one another up in knowing silence says everything about Melville’s less is more world. He let films breathe, he recreated the gangster genre, he inspired later directing heroes but more than anything he was a master at work.
From Bob Le Flambeur, to Le Dolous, to Le Samourai, this is an auteur at work who at his peak made five great films in a row.
Le deuxième souffle (Second Breath) shot in 1966 was Melville’s final black and white film. A crime thriller starring Lino Ventura as Gustave Minda ‘Gu’, an escaped prisoner who gets involved with one last caper and is pursued by both corrupt policeman and betraying gangsters… his criminal code of ethics mean its only going to end one way. To say Michael Mann borrowed elements of ‘Heat’ from this film would be an understatement! Nearly 150 minutes long it’s gone before you know it and you’re already pressing the play button once more to understand the clever intricacies of the plot, study the great performances and watch one of the most realistic and enthralling heist scenes filmed across the french mountains. In Melville’s criminal world no-one is truly free of morality or sins that come back to haunt you. Indeed Gu is a man waiting for death, knowing its inevitable were dying with his ‘name’ intact is all important.
Le Samouraï (The Samurai) shot in 1967 is Melville’s first collaboration with Alain Delon whom would become his later stawlet. This is where the Melville regulation trench coat and snap-brimmed hat got its worldwide following.
Delon plays perfectionist hitman and obsessive Bushido (Book of the Samurai) reader Jef Costello whom like all Melvilles protagonists lives by a strict code that will eventually be his un-doing. We follow Costello’s minimalist world – from sparse apartment, to little interaction with the outside world, if he even says one word to you its purely business. After leaving the crime of one hit without his usual attention to detail, including a piano playing female as witness, the police are soon in Costello’s rear-view mirror. He then finds his recent bosses don’t want to pay up either and soon he has the underworld on his trail. Befriending the piano player Costello soon realizes he is in a no win situation – the only way to clear his name is to kill this lady he has now warmed to. The ending (without spoiling) is one of the coolest tricks in the book and leaves you satisfied. The minimalist style of little to no dialogue and sparse key locations later influenced Walter Hill’s The Driver, John Woo’s The Killer and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog:The Way of the Samurai.
L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) filmed in 1968 sees Melville moving away from the gangster genre and into something he himself knew first hand about ‘The French Resistance’ during World War 2 (Melville was a fully fledged member). Based on Joseph Kessel’s book he also creates fictionalized versions alongside the historical facts. Playing like a historical documentary movie at times it follows a small group of Resistance fighters as they move between safe houses, work with the Allied militaries, kill informers, and attempt to evade the capture and execution that they know is their most likely fate. It is perhaps Melville’s most mature, nihilistic and brutal film in equel measures. He really does pull no punches here and its hardly surprising given how close the matter was to his own life. It has not one lead protagonist but many and after each brutal episodic study of a single character it moves onto the next one with the French Resistance movement the core component throughout. It again has a stand out performance from Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier, showing that Melville liked to work with certain actors more than once and that respect/trust would often lead to great performances on screen.
Le Cercle rouge (The Red Circle) is a 1970 crime film and my personal Melville favourite. It stars four great actors at the height and full prowess of their work – Alain Delon as recently released career criminal Corey, Andre Bourvil as Le Commissaire Mattei the relentless but fair policeman, the always watchable Gian Maria Volonte as Vogel an escaping criminal and last but by no means least Yves Montand in an scene stealing performance as Jansen, once the best marksemen around now full of personal addictions and doubts.
From the beautiful cinematography where shots replace dialogue to full effect to the gestures of these actors say more than words ever can. Each of the four leads is given meaty backstories and a chance to breath on screen to build and sympathise with their characters no matter what side of the law they’re on. Meaning when the end comes we feel the tragedy of ‘karmic chance and fate’ all the more. The film contains a famous 30 minute silent heist sequence – timed, acted and directed to perfection – whom needs words in Melville’s gangster world!!!
The film’s title refers to a Budda phrase of ‘When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.’ Known as one of John Woo’s favourite films don’t let that put you off (!) think Hong Kong John Woo not Hollywood mercenary John Woo working with JCVD!
Un Flic (Dirty Money) made in 1972 was Melville’s last film before his untimely death. It stars his favourite later year stelwart Alain Delon as Commissaire Edouard Coleman (for once Delon is playing the good guy) reluctantly chasing Richard Crenna as his best friend, Simon, nightclub owner and master bank robber, and the woman whom they both love and share the always beautiful and erotic Catherine Deneuve as Cathy.
Though this movie is the most obviously flawed of Melville’s final five films it still has wonderful set-pieces like the bank robbery at the start by the windy sea, more black humour than previous efforts with silly character names ‘Suitcase Matthew!’, a transvestite whom fancies Delon’s cop, and an over the top laugh out loud helicopter chase sequence against a fast moving train! As always though its directed and acted with such a knowing cool that you forgive its transgressions and enjoy it more as the master crime director looking to break into the American market with his tongue firmly in cheek. It also has the best Melville movie poster – Delon’s face taking up half the image with a cigarette hanging out whilst masked bank robbers underneath this floating head escape!
This article was first posted on March 13, 2012